Tricks of the Trade: Owning Cooking Tips

website peach shortcake

“Run, Paula, run!”

In middle school our gym year always began with a trip to the town park for a complete “physical”.  Sit ups, push ups, a mile run around the track.  As an overweight pre-teen this was not one of my favorite things to do in life. Unfortunately I had no choice in the matter.

Then came the September of my eighth grade year.  During my seventh grade year I had suddenly and miraculously begun to grow once again and had completely thinned out.  While I had realized this was doing wonders for my social life, I had yet to learn that it could impact my athletic ability.

You can imagine my surprise to discover that with the weight loss, I could actually hold up my thinner weight in a push up, pull in the smaller stomach into a sit up position, and run without losing my breath.  It was an even greater surprise to discover that I was on my way to beating Stephanie, the yearly hands-down “winner” of the mile run.

I had simply been marveling in my ability to breathe and run at the same time as I went around the track the first time, but as I ran the track for the second time, the screams of friends telling me to “run” made their way into my consciousness.  I looked around and discovered that Stephanie was a few paces behind me, which was simply unheard of.

A true confession:  When I realized that I was actually ahead of Stephanie, a surge of adolescent competitive power surged throughout my entire being and all I could think was that I was going to beat Stephanie if it was the last thing I did. Unfortunately, Stephanie had years of running on her side, which I was all to aware of as she began to gain on me.

Since I was determined to win, though, I pictured my dad in my mind.  He had run in numerous marathons, many of which I had watched him run in, so I figured I might be able to gain some tips from him.  I could see him regulating his breathing, keeping his steps heel-toe, and focusing his vision ahead on the finish line.

As I adjusted my breathing, stride and vision, I began to feel like a runner, and I started to think that I actually was a runner.  It occurred to me that I could actually beat Stephanie and before I knew it, a burst of speed had kicked in and I was leaving Stephanie behind by a quarter of a lap, which continued until I crossed the finish line.

New experiences can trump the old

Before that day I would have vehemently denied that I could run, let alone beat the fastest girl in our grade.  That experience proved I was wrong, though, and in many ways changed the trajectory of the next few years to come as I took up long-distance running.

In the same way, too often I hear from people that they can’t cook, that they’ve tried in the past and it didn’t work, so they don’t want to try again.  What I’ve learned over the years is that anyone can cook.  They just have to learn the tricks or tips that will help them to be successful.

Searching out tips

The key is to actually seek out the tricks of the trade, though.  Much of what I’ve learned about what works and what doesn’t in cooking has been through trial and error experience, but just as much has been people sharing their tips with me along the way and me searching out the best tips in cooking magazines, from cooking shows, and online.  Disastrous recipes have miraculously come together once I’ve learned the right tips for those particular recipes.

So, below I’ll share a few tried and true tricks which I’ve learned along the way to get you started, so you, too, can discover that you can “run” when you thought you couldn’t.

Cooking tips

1.  Ever been frustrated that your potato pancakes or crab cakes fall apart?  Mix your bread crumbs or oatmeal or whatever dry mixture you’re using in with the eggs and let it sit for five minutes to absorb the egg before you mix them into the rest of  your ingredients.

2.  Been frustrated by a recipe that calls for buttermilk when you never have buttermilk in the house?  Add one teaspoon lemon juice or vinegar to a cup of whatever milk you use and let is sit for five minutes.  Then just add it to your recipe.  Alternatively, invest in SACO powdered buttermilk which can sit in your pantry or fridge for months without going bad.  You just add water when you need to use it.

3.  Ever wonder why your hamburgers puff up on the grill?  It’s because heat is affecting the cooking of the burger from all directions, making the center of the burger puff.  If you simply put a dimple in the center of your burgers, the burgers will cook more evenly and not be puffed up.

4.  Been trying to figure out how to make your thawed frozen fish taste like fresh? The key to good frozen fish is to thaw it completely, rinse it, and pat it dry with a paper towel before you cook it.  Too often folks just thaw and cook which leaves too much of the watery residue which greatly affects the cooking, the taste and the texture.

5.  Don’t want your pasta to be too soft after the sauce is added?  Cook your pasta one to two minutes less than the package directions, drain, and then add it to your hot sauce so the pasta will finish cooking with the heat of the sauce.   If you are cooking your pasta ahead of time, rinse it in cool water, drain, and toss with a tiny bit of olive oil.  The pasta will keep until you need it later for dinner.

6.  Never been able to roll out that pie crust without problems?  Put the pie dough in between two pieces of wax paper and then roll out with the rolling pin.  You’ll be amazed at how easy it is to roll that pie crust now.

7.  Been trying to figure out how to actually get all of your honey, molasses or otherwise sticky substance out of the measuring cup and into your recipe?  Lightly grease the inside of your measuring cup or line it with plastic wrap.  The sticky liquid will just slide out.

8.  Want to cut your small fruit into equal sizes?  Use your egg slicer.  It works wonders.

9.  Want boiled eggs that aren’t green on the inside or over or undercooked?Cook’s Illustrated has the best method I’ve ever tried:  Put your eggs into cold water, completely covering them up to an inch over with water.  Bring the water to a boil over high heat.  Remove the pan from the heat, cover, and let the eggs sit in the pan for 10 minutes.  Remove the eggs to ice water for five minutes, and then peel.

10.  Tired of your freshly baked quick breads sticking to your loaf pans?  Line your loaf pans with parchment paper so that “ears” are sticking up from the pan, so that you can simply lift the breads out of the pans when they’re done.

11.  Want homemade pizza crusts to be as crispy as the pizza from a brick oven? Preheat your oven to 500 degrees with your pizza stone or pan in the oven.  Put your pizza crust directly onto the hot pizza pan and cook for five minutes before you add your tomato sauce, toppings, and cheese.  Return the pizza to the oven for another five minutes or until the cheese is melted and the crust is browned and crisp.

12.  Been sad that your mashed potatoes which were perfect when you made them are too thick when you serve them?  Potatoes will continue to absorb the milk over time, so after you initially make your potatoes, let them sit for a few minutes before adding more warmed milk to the potatoes.

13.  Ever had difficulty making those pudding recipes because they gum up when you add the cornstarch?  No matter what your recipe tells you, if you simply whisk the cornstarch in from the beginning into your liquid and slowly warm the liquid up over low heat, stirring constantly, your pudding will thicken properly without gumming up.

14.  Wonder how to keep your cheesecake from cracking?  Wrap the outside of your cheesecake pan with aluminum foil and your cheesecake pan into a larger pan which you can add hot water to up to the center of the cheesecake pan.  Bake the cheesecake as instructed.  The moisture from the water will keep your cheesecake from cracking.  Just be careful when you’re removing the pan from the hot water after it’s done!

15.  Tired of trying to cut your cake layers to make enough layers for the cake recipe?  Simply bake thinner cake layers.  For example, I bake a multiple layer cake by putting about a cup of cake batter into a parchment lined 9 in pan and baking two pans at a time for about ten minutes.  Then I have four, six, or eight nicely sized thinner layers without the effort of trying to “cut” the larger cakes into smaller layers.

16.  Want to make great pasta salad?  After you cook your pasta and drain it, transfer the pasta immediately to a large cookie tray so it can cool quickly and evenly.  This will improve the texture of your pasta for your pasta salad and help your pasta marinade to “stick” to the pasta better.

Peach Shortcakes

Shortcake Ingredients:

1/2 cup vegan butter (or real butter if you can have it)

2 cups 100% whole wheat flour

3 teaspoons baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon of ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon dried orange peel

1/4 teaspoon ground ginger

1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

2 tablespoons Agave (if you want to use sugar, it would need 1/4 cup)

1/2 cup soy milk (or whatever type you use)

Cooking Instructions:

1.  Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.  Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper.

2.  In a food processor put the butter, flour, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, orange peel, ginger, nutmeg, and Agave.  Pulse just until the dough is crumbly.

3.  Slowly add the milk and pulse just until the dough clumps together.

4.  Drop lightly filled 1/4 cups of batter onto the parchment paper and gently pat the dough into even biscuit shapes and sizes.  (You may want to lightly grease your measuring cup if you don’t want the dough to stick.  I don’t actually use a measuring cup. I just eyeball a 1/4 cup size.)  

5.  Bake for 10-15 minutes until the biscuits are lightly browned and cooked through.

Peaches Ingredients:

2 16 oz bags of frozen peach slices (you can always use fresh, too!)

4 tablespoons Agave

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1/2 tsp ginger

1/4 cup packed ginger mint and/or mint leaves

Cooking Instructions:

1.  Thinly slice the ginger mint and/or mint leaves into strips.

2.  Mix the Agave with the cinnamon and ginger.

3.  In a large bowl, mix the gingermint/mint leaves and the Agave mixture with the peaches.

4.  If using the peaches shortly, let the peaches sit out on the counter for 15 minutes or more until they are thawed.  Be sure to stir the peaches every so often.  If using the peaches later in the day or the next day, put the peaches into the fridge.  Be sure to mix them well before serving.  (You can also thaw the peaches in the microwave before mixing them with the other ingredients, if you need them more immediately.)

Cream Ingredients:

One pint soy creamer

1/2 cup soy sour cream

1/4 cup Agave

2 tablespoons cornstarch

1/4 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons vanilla

Cooking Instructions:

1.  In a saucepan, mix the soy creamer, the sour cream, the agave, the cornstarch and the salt.

2.  Slowly cook over a low heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture begins to thicken.

3.  Remove from the heat and add in the vanilla.

4.  Pour into a heat safe bowl.  Place a piece of saran wrap directly against the cream to prevent it from forming a “crust”, and cool in the fridge.

5.  When it’s completely cooled, you can simply stir it up with a spoon and serve over the shortcakes or you can whip them in a mixer or with a whisk if you want to incorporate some air and make the cream fluffier.

Assembling the Shortcakes:

1.  Place one shortcake on a plate.

2.  Spoons some peaches on top of the shortcake.

3.  Put a dollop of cream on top of the peaches.

4.  Enjoy!

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